“Is there a volunteer from the audience who would like to join us on stage?”

This phrase can send a wave of fear through the audience. It’s not because they don’t want to help you out. It’s because audience members, in many shows are shamed, forced, and intimidated to “volunteer” and then they are embarrassed and made fun of when they are on stage.


When Neal Leaheey signed up for the Impro School newsletter, he suggested a discussion about, “Working respectfully with audience members on stage.”

THANKS Neal! Great topic!

Let’s Continue the Conversation.
Feel free to add your thoughts below or write me a little comment.



The Audience is your partner

You’d better take care of your guests. Not only is it decent human behaviour to care of others, but it serves your future as a performer who wants their audience to keep coming back.  

The audience learns to avoid close proximity if they think they will be your target.  If the front rows are consistently the last to fill up, there’s a problem. 

Audience members don’t want to sit close to the performers when they KNOW they will be picked on, embarrassed or dragged into shows that treat them poorly.

If the audience avoids eye contact, they’ve probably developed a reason why they want to avoid interaction with you.

If the audience is aggressive and gives pointless or mean spirited suggestions, it’s likely they’ve been trained that way by previous performances. 

Many groups with “audience issues” argue, “That’s just the way our audience behaves.” 

That’s bullshit.  

You get the audience you deserve (most of the time). Disrespect them  and they will treat you the same. Accept infantile behaviour and you will scare away the audience that will inspire your development.  

Some topics and thoughts are in the next column. Click the button by the title and see if you agree with the suggestions.

The Audience Contract

Close-Up View of Two People Shake HandsThere’s an unwritten contract between you and your audience. Consider writing it down and posting it back stage. At the bare minimum, know what it is and honour it. AND… let the audience know what it is.

At the Loose Moose theatre, Keith Johnstone taught his company to respect the audience AND to treat them to respect the cast, the show and the other audience members.

We knew:

  • Never make the audience look stupid.
  • Never pick someone because their friends volunteered them.
  • Never take a suggestion that makes the performer look stupid or immoral.
  • Take care of the audience if individuals are damaging everyone’s experience. (drunks, jerks, and trolls)

If we ask for a suggestion of an occupation and the audience member gives a suggestion trying to be funny or shock people, (“You are a gynecologist for an elephant!”), we choose not to engage.

We might say something like, can we have a real occupation from an audience member’s real life? Or we might dismiss it gently saying something like, “We heard that last week. How about a suggestion from someone’s actual life on this side of the audience” (divert the attention and dismiss the comment).

I’ve heard some people say things like, “We don’t want a suggestion from your real life sir.” The problem with this approach is that occasionally the audience member might engage in discussion or other audience members might feel reluctant to offer suggestions because it would draw a negative focus onto them.

When you know what kind of audience you want, develop the contract. Know what you want and let the cast know what you want so you are consistent.  At some point, you don’t have to work to get what you want because everyone knows what kind of space they are walking into. The audience regulates themselves.

I’m not saying you should limit the expression of your audience. I’m saying that there are limits in interaction that will create a better time for everyone and aid in creating better shows.

Audience Interaction

When you interact with your audience, there are practical and stylistic things to consider.


  • Step towards the audience.
    Improvisers who shy away from the audience make them feel uncomfortable and set a tentative relationship.
  • Have the lights fade up a bit on the audience. (It’s best when your lighting person knows to do this automatically. If you have to ask for lights, the audience members feel like you are controlling an attack. When lights fade up gently without asking, it feels a little magical and is less noticed than a spotlight on them.) Seeing the audience allows you to make eye contact – which is good. Never shade your eyes from the lights.
  • Speak clearly and loud enough to be heard in the back row.
  • Try to narrow your focus to one person so the audience knows who you are talking to.
  • If you are asking for general suggestions, repeat the ones that you can hear and acknowledge the general location where it came from.
  • Repeat the suggestion you accept so that people in the back rows will know what’s going on.
  • Thank the audience member for their suggestion.
Audience on Stage and OFF

What was said in the previous section applies here of course but we take it to another level when the audience steps out from the shadows and into your space.

  • Set your expectations clearly. “Is there a volunteer who would be willing to be interviewed… to be in a scene where you wouldn’t have to talk… to teach us their real-life job…etc”
  • If it’s in your power, NEVER invite someone who is intoxicated onto the stage. It’s just asking for trouble.
  • Avoid the volunteer who was “volunteered” by friends. 
  • silhouette of people raising their handsWhen a volunteer is chosen, invite them to the stage AND move towards them. At a bare minimum, go to the edge of the stage where it meets the audience but in some cases, you might have to walk off your stage and meet them in ‘their world’.
  • If an audience member is asked to be on stage, WATCH THEIR RESPONSE… When they say no and you see fear – Don’t ask again. Reassure them that it’s no problem. When you see hesitation and a smile, you have someone who probably wants to be on stage. They are worth engaging with. They might need a little encouragement. When you see someone running from their seat and onto the stage, before you’ve chosen them… be ready to control them. It might already be too late.
  • Never leave them alone. Someone should always be with them unless you have created a safe and controlled environment that they are comfortable with.
  • Explain the details of what you want clearly.  Be ready to correct misunderstandings early. Letting issues go on for too long creates bad feelings when not dealt with or if addressed too late.
  • Thank the guests when the scene is done and get a round of applause for them from the audience as you escort them off the stage.
  • Don’t disengage from them until the lights come up to guide them off stage. Their eyes have adjusted to the stage brightness and they are more likely to trip as they move back to their seat in the darkness.
  • Don’t make fun of what they did on stage or try to get a laugh at their expense. (that’s just announcing to everyone that you are disrespectful and likely will do the same to them if you ever ask for an audience volunteer again.).
  • At the end of the show, make a quick comment thanking your audience volunteers one more time.
Difficult audience members


Difficult audience volunteers come in a few flavours.  

  • Drunk and intoxicated
  • Mean-spirited and just want the focus
  • Performers or wannabe performers who want to show how clever they are.
  • People who “just don’t get it”. They don’t intend to be difficult. they just can’t understand the instructions or figure out what to do.
  • Shy, Nervous and fearful volunteers. They’re in over their heads. They had no idea it would be so scary or that they would freeze up.

Those who offer direct confrontation and just won’t listen and might be putting others at imminent risk need to be dealt with swiftly and directly. 
You should see these people from a long way off but if you’ve mistakenly got one of these people on stage, find a way to draw your scene to a close quickly and politely thank them and get them back to their seat.

I’ve only ever seen one incident where the audience member had to be ushered off of the stage and out of the theatre. In that case, ushers were standing by when they recognized the situation was growing out of hand.

The performer on stage was quick enough to end the scene, call the volunteer by their name and ask his friends in the audience to join them in the lobby. There they were refunded their money and asked to leave.

Engaging in discussions with those under the influence is not likely going to impact them. Nothing you could say will possibly work because they will keep fighting.  So, don’t engage unless it’s a last resort where you suggest that if they won’t stop, you will have to ask them to leave.

If it continues, you need to follow up on the promise to send them away.

You probably will not have to go through the above scenario in your impro shows. But… it MIGHT happen so practice what you might do in your imagination. (it’s a useful way to be prepared for the unknown) Also, develop a mutually understood response with your group.


If you have those people who just want to be funny (and they aren’t… or they disrupt what’s going on), again cut that scene short. Move on.


Coach them. Pre-empting those situations with statements like, “Try to be as normal as possible”, “Try not to perform for us,” and “Don’t do too much”.  This gives you the chance to stop and remind them that they don’t have to try so hard. “Just be yourself.”

A good example of that is from the “solo show” called BLIND DATE by Rebecca Northan performed with an audience member where a “TIME OUT” section is set up on the side of the stage and the volunteer is occasionally asked to chat in the time out area and coached gently and clearly to pull it back to normal. (a reminder of the “contract” set up at the top of the show)

Some people are entirely innocent.  Maybe FEAR hits them and they lose the ability to participate. Maybe that volunteer has a disability that wasn’t evident when they volunteered.

In that case…

BE POSITIVE.  BE SUPPORTIVE. Good improvisers should be developing tools on how to deal with those who don’t have all the skills to handle scenes and shows. Now is your time to use those tools.

Have someone in the cast devoted to helping them. (their sidekick, partner, etc)
Make a game of choices so the volunteer doesn’t have to come up with any answers or offers of their own. They can just nod or say Yes and no. 

Keith Johnstone had a game that worked well for the fearful guest. It was, “YES, SOUNDS GOOD TO ME, I’LL GO ALONG WITH THAT!” Simply put, give them those three lines to say. (You could even write them down on paper for them to randomly choose). Skillful improvisers can make a scene come out of any partner who uses these positive statements.

Start collecting tools for the difficult volunteer. Brainstorm ideas with the rest of your company so that you go into the adventure together.

Audience Gifts

It’s nice to have some form of gift on hand to offer volunteers on stage or even something for the occasional suggestion.

In a format I developed called SHELL GAME (title by Andrew Heffler) – which involved an audience guest in the show, I would ask, CHOCOLATE OR ALCOHOL at the end… whichever one they said, we had a gift ready.

Inspired by Kieth Johnstone, we would often give away free tickets to upcoming shows as a way to thank audience members.

This worked well because it encouraged them to come back and bring friends.

Bare minimum: SAY THANK YOU FOR THEIR HELP. And get the audience to applaud them. They should leave the stage feeling that the experience was a gift.



While performing in Chile, a Mexican improvisation group, Complot Escena, performed their long-form show. Angélica Rogel approached the audience and smiled, and walked forward, and when someone agreed to help, she sat at their feet and held their hand while waiting for the other cast members to get their audience member.

The audience member fell in love with her. The entire audience fell in love with her. This was an improviser who wanted to connect with the audience members. She showed that she honoured the audience and would care for them. It was a great way to start their show.

a couple of people that are hugging each otherSLOVENIA

In Slovenia, I had an experience with a format I developed specifically to find the perfect match of audience member and performer.

Everyone stood up in the audience. The performers said things that were true about themselves and if it were also true of audience members, they would remain standing while the others sat down.

I was left with one person. At this point, the audience member and I were on the same path ((GOOD TIP – FIND INTEREST IN THE AUDIENCE MEMBER)). I let her know that she didn’t have to answer any questions unless she wanted to. ((PERMISSION OPENS DOORS)) She happily said yes.

Our discussion led to engaging information and by showing my enthusiasm she felt her ideas were valued (Support your guests).

She agreed to come up onto the stage and do a scene with me. I gave her the power, suggesting we pause at any time there were questions or confusions. (Put some control into the audience members’ hands).

She leds the scene masterfully.

She left the stage giving me a big hug. If the audience member offers physical contact (hug, handshake) accept it immediately. It’s a sign that the experience in the theatre that night will stay with her and the entire audience.

Treat your audience like people you love. They’ll come back to your shows often.   


Whether it’s about getting suggestions or getting audience members on stage, develop these important skills in your company. Get a common understanding of what contract you want to have with your guests and encourage everyone in your company to practice the behaviour that has your audience leaving more connected than when they walked in.


I’ve mentioned a few formats that focus on audience members as a core part of the work. Consider playing with their ideas as a way to develop the tools to treat your audience well.

LIFE GAME – Keith Johnstone’s famous audience-focused format that asks performers to “HONOUR THE GUEST.” Contact Keith Johnstone Workshops for more information.


1/3 of the show focusses on an audience members story and the rest of the show calls on the audience to make a commitment to truth’s and Lies.
Contact The Improvisation School for more info.


This show would be nothing if it weren’t for the audience participation on and off the stage. The performers and the audience are not divided by the fourth wall. They overlap their realities to make an experience that shows the universal stories we all share.
Contact The Improvisation School for more info.